My evening with Rachel and Sean; or, how cable makes polarization worse

Photo (cc) via Torange.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Rachel Maddow was excited. The host of cable news’ top-rated show could barely contain her glee Wednesday night over the news that President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had proven to be such a cooperative witness that special counsel Robert Mueller was recommending no jail time.

“Another few shoes are going to drop soon,” she told her viewers. She also pondered the mystery of why Trump never says anything critical about Flynn. “Not a peep about Mike Flynn since Flynn plead guilty and became a cooperator more than a year ago,” she said, adding, “There must be something else going on here. And, “The only other person he treats like this is freaking Putin!”

It was a different story on cable news’ second-highest-rated program. Sean Hannity was in full dudgeon over Mueller’s decision to go after Flynn for what Hannity called minor “process” crimes. Hannity instructed his viewers that Mueller had persecuted “a decorated military hero” for the sole purpose of building a phony case to drive Trump out of office.

“This is how desperate and how pathetic Robert Mueller is,” Hannity said, running through the reasons why Flynn might have decided to cooperate: finances ruined, his son facing possible jail time. “Is this,” Hannity asked, “what justice in America is supposed to look like to you?”

Welcome to the 2018 edition of the National Conversation. With the Mueller investigation on the verge of a possible denouement, I thought I’d spend Wednesday night watching “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Hannity.” Hyper-polarization may be tearing us apart, but at the cable news outlets, it’s good for business. According to Adweek’s TVNewser, Maddow’s program on MSNBC this past Tuesday drew nearly 3.5 million viewers, more than anyone else on cable news in prime time (8 to 11 p.m.). Hannity, on Fox News, gathered just under 2.9 million.

And surely it’s no accident that that MSNBC, which leans left, and Fox, which has embraced the hard right, are dominating prime time while CNN brings up the rear. Though CNN, like MSNBC, is harshly critical of Trump and regularly draws the White House’s ire, the network has attempted to maintain at least some of its former image as a nonpartisan purveyor of actual news. MSNBC and Fox, bound by no such scruples, are free to toss bleeding chunks of raw meat to their aging viewers.

It should be noted that all three cable outlets employ actual journalists who do good work. It’s just that they are rarely seen during prime time, especially on MSNBC and Fox. Instead, the three networks offer a full line-up of talk shows, nine hours a night. And the queen and king of those talk shows are Maddow and Hannity, whose 9 p.m. programs have become appointment viewing for political partisans of the left and right.

Lest I be accused of false equivalence, let me make it clear that Maddow, for all her opinionating and speculating, helms a show that is grounded in facts. She’s smart, and you often learn something. Over at Fox, though, the Trump presidency has pushed Hannity and other hosts into an alternative universe of dark conspiracy-mongering in which the Mueller investigation is nothing but a corrupt attempt by the “deep state” to destroy a great president because of his willingness to stand up to the establishment.

Thus did Wednesday’s edition feature a conversation between Hannity and John Solomon, an investigative columnist with The Hill, who this week reported on an “email chain”purportedly showing that former FBI director James Comey and other officials had obtained a FISA warrant under false pretenses so that they could surveil Trump associate Carter Page. Inconveniently, Solomon admitted to Hannity that he hadn’t actually seen the emails, although they have been “described” to him. All right, then.

Hannity was apoplectic, calling Solomon’s story proof of a “conscious fraud upon the court” and saying it showed that Comey was trying to tilt the election toward Hillary Clinton — never mind Comey’s late hit on Clinton, when he reopened the investigation into her emails and found nothing, a move that may well have cost her the election.

The rest of Hannity’s hour was taken up with a visit from Newt Gingrich, who called the Mueller investigation “an anti-constitutional effort by the organized left” and who congratulated Fox News for being the only media outlet willing to tell the truth; an immigration “debate” with fellow Fox host Geraldo Rivera (Hannity and Rivera both support Trump’s wall, but Rivera, unlike Hannity, would do something for the Dreamers); and, believe it or not, an update on the war on Christmas, perhaps Fox News’ most enduring creation.

Maddow’s program was considerably less toxic than Hannity’s but not necessarily any more nutritious. Other than Flynn, her main interest was the fate of Maria Butina, an accused Russian operative who, we learned, stood up at a Trump event in 2015 and apparently became the first person ever to ask the then-candidate whether he would lift sanctions against Russia. (Trump responded that he’d strongly consider it.) Butina, Maddow observed, may be the link uniting Russian money, the Trump campaign, and the National Rifle Association.

Maddow was also visited briefly by the ubiquitous Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California, who will soon become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Alex Isenstadt of Politico, who broke the news earlier this week that a foreign government had hacked the email accounts of several top Republican campaign officials.

Significantly, neither Maddow nor Hannity spent much time on the funeral of George H.W. Bush, which has brought a sense of unity to much of the country even if praise for the one-term president has been somewhat overwrought. Maddow, at least, provided a respectful overview of the day’s events. Hannity’s main interest was to bring on New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer so they could whine that Democratic praise for the late president was just another way of trashing Trump.

Cable news has long been a wasted opportunity. So much airtime. So little news. Imagine how it might be different. How about at least one hour of prime time combining news and analysis without any partisan overlay? I’m thinking of something like Anderson Cooper’s CNN program, only with more actual journalism. Or the “PBS NewsHour” with a zippier pace and better production values.

But no. Instead we have ideological talk-show hosts exploiting the passions of their audience for ratings and profits. It’s a sorry state of affairs — but one that perfectly reflects our deep and seemingly unbridgeable divisions.

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Up with Hannity: Analyzing Kavanaugh with Trump’s most vociferous defender

Sean Hannity. Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Monday was a big day for Sean Hannity, the conspiracy-minded Fox News Channel host. After all, it’s not every day that the president of the United States — even one you’re as close to as Hannity is to Donald Trump — schedules the unveiling of his choice for the Supreme Court in order to give you a ratings boost. According to Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair, some White House staff members believed Trump did exactly that. Sherman tweeted that Trump may have chosen 9 p.m. at the behest of his sleazy new communications director, Bill Shine, the former head of Fox News.

Despite this propitious opportunity, Hannity didn’t really deliver the goods, prattling on for an hour with his usual talking points and his usual guests. He didn’t quite come off as bored, but his anger and his enthusiasm seemed rote. Indeed, there was a play-acting quality to the proceedings in general. Both Republicans and Democrats know that the president’s choice, Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, is pretty much a lock to win confirmation.

Still, three themes emerged that I suspect we will hear over and over during the next few months.

The first is that we are a “constitutional republic.” President Trump made that point in his opening remarks, and Hannity repeated it several times. That might seem like a statement of the obvious. So why keep bringing it up? I suspect it’s because we are in the midst of a prolonged period of minority rule. A number of articles have been published recently documenting growing restiveness among the powerless majority.

Consider: Trump is president because for the first time in more than a century the winning candidate captured the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. (Remember, the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore ended in a virtual tie.) That’s not all. By 54 percent to 42 percent, voters favored Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate in 2016. And the Republicans’ victory in House races paid off in numbers disproportionate to their razor-thin margin of 49 percent to 48 percent.

No, that’s not the way we count votes in Senate and House elections. But it does show that Democrats have been shut out of power even though voters prefer them. Mitch McConnell’s deeply corrupt refusal to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, only served to underscore this anti-majoritarian trend. So expect to see a lot of talk in the weeks to come from Hannity and other Trump supporters that the United States isn’t really a democracy, and why that’s a Good Thing.

The second talking point I noticed is that the right wants to cast Democrats as opponents of fair play by declaring their opposition to Kavanaugh before giving him a chance to make his case. For instance, conservatives are having some fun with a statement from the Women’s March, clearly written before the Kavanaugh announcement, saying that if “XX” is confirmed it will be “a death sentence for thousands of women.”

“They would object to anyone this president nominated,” Fox News’ Shannon Bream told Hannity. “They’re going to come after him because that’s what they do,” added Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who’s a veteran of right-wing causes as well as a member of Trump’s legal team. Hannity himself warned his viewers that “the smearing, the besmirching, the fear-mongering … this all-out effort to Bork Judge Kavanaugh” has already begun. Hannity added: “They are going to lie to you. That’s what they do. You have to rely on your heart and mind and do your own research.”

Here’s the problem with the notion that the instant opposition to Kavanaugh is somehow unfair: During the campaign, Trump put out a list of 11 judges from which he said he would choose. The list was later expanded to 25. Hannity and his guests referred to the list several times Monday night as an example of how “transparent” Trump has been. Well, you can’t have it both ways. Democrats and liberals have known for many months that Kavanaugh could be picked. It would have been a surprise if they weren’t prepared with an instant reaction to every XX on the list.

The third talking point may prove to be the most substantive, especially if there’s any chance of persuading a few Republicans opposed to runaway executive power to vote against Kavanaugh. (Ha ha! I can’t believe I just typed that.) Hannity made several uneasy references to Kavanaugh’s arguing in a 2009 law review article that a president should not be subject to criminal or civil proceedings while in office, and he noted that this was a reversal of Kavanaugh’s earlier position.

In fact, Kavanaugh did a complete flip-flop. Back when he was working on Kenneth Starr’s inquisition into the great crime of whether Bill Clinton had lied about oral sex, Kavanaugh believed that the president should not get a “break,” as he put it. Now, though, Kavanaugh thinks the president should be held harmless until after he leaves office.

“Looking back to the late 1990s, for example, the nation certainly would have been better off if President Clinton could have focused on Osama bin Laden without being distracted by the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and its criminal investigation offshoots,” Kavanaugh wrote in the Minnesota Law Review. “To be sure, one can correctly say that President Clinton brought that ordeal on himself, by his answers during his deposition in the [Paula] Jones case if nothing else.”

Now, of course, we have another president facing legal jeopardy on a variety of criminal and civil fronts, from possible collusion with the Russian government to the alleged use of his charitable foundation for personal gain. It’s not difficult to understand why Hannity and his guests on Monday stepped carefully around Kavanaugh’s change of heart, even if they are secretly delighted.

Democrats, on the other hand, wasted no time in picking up on that point. On MSNBC, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that “Donald Trump got the trifecta” — a nominee who would likely vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, kill off the Affordable Care Act once and for all, and, if necessary, help Trump “if he gets into serious legal trouble.”

That one of Bill Clinton’s persecutors may emerge as a defender of Trump’s possible legal offenses is in some cosmic sense an apotheosis of hypocrisy, even if on a personal level Kavanaugh’s reversal was sincere. I don’t expect Hannity and his crew to defend that hypocrisy effectively. But I have no doubt that they’ll defend it loudly, repetitively, and disingenuously, which in the age of Trump is all that seems to matter.

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The war against ‘fake news’ is over. So what’s next in restoring media credibility?

Rush Limbaugh. Photo (cc) by xxx.
Rush Limbaugh. Photo (cc) 2010 by Gage Skidmore.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. A little over a month ago I wrote that if we tried to expand the definition of “fake news” beyond for-profit clickfarms, then the movement to eradicate hoaxes from Facebook and other venues would quickly degenerate into ideologically motivated name-calling.

And so it came to pass. The New York Times on Monday published two stories that, for all purposes, mark the end of the nascent battle against fake news.

The first, by Jeremy Peters, details the efforts of Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, and other right-wingers to label anything they don’t like that’s reported by the mainstream media as fake news. The second, by David Streitfeld, documents how the right has unleashed its flying monkeys against Snopes.com, the venerable fact-checking site that is the gold standard for exposing online falsehoods.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

One final word (I hope) on Olbermann

Olbermann addressing his suspension last night. Click on image to see video.

One thing I could have made clearer in what has proved to be a fascinating discussion about Keith Olbermann’s political donations is that my support for the principle of journalistic independence should not be confused with support for the specific NBC News policy that tripped him up.

The policy, as reported by Politico, is absurd, as it cites the need to remain an “impartial journalist” as its justification, and states that employees may make contributions if they seek permission:

Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.

No one would consider Olbermann to be an impartial journalist, and I can easily believe he had no idea he was violating policy when he donated to three Democratic politicians. Not to be belabor the point, but the principle that I think matters is independence, not impartiality. Check out the nine principles in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “Elements of Journalism.” You will note that two of them deal with independence, but objectivity isn’t even mentioned.

In his commentary last night, Olbermann implicitly described himself as a journalist by saying that the policy needs to be reconsidered in light of “21st-century journalism.” He is doing journalism of a sort. If you can find a meaningful difference between one of Olbermann’s “special comments” and Frank Rich’s Sunday column in the New York Times (one of my favorite reads), then you’re able to draw distinctions that elude me. And I don’t think anyone would argue that Rich isn’t a journalist.

Olbermann last night not only admitted he should have changed a “Worst Person” segment because of one of his donations, but he also quite properly pointed out the problems that would have ensued if he had contributed to Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva before having him on the show rather than after. That strikes me as a pretty good summation of why even opinionated hosts shouldn’t write checks to politicians.

A final observation: A number of people have criticized me and others for obsessing over Olbermann’s small contributions when Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity routinely donate to politicians, and when Fox News major domo Rupert Murdoch has no scruples about giving $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.

They’re right, of course. Fox News is strictly a talk-show operation — the video equivalent of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. MSNBC aspires to something higher than that. To say that MSNBC is a mirror image of Fox News is akin to arguing that the Nation is just like the Drudge Report. Rachel Maddow explained the difference quite well on Friday. But I don’t think it’s necessary to say “of course, Fox is worse” every time I write about MSNBC.

NBC handled the Olbermann matter badly right from the start, though the final result — a two-day suspension — strikes me as fitting the offense rather well. I’m glad Olbermann is back. And I agree with him that NBC ought to take another look at its policy. I’d make it tougher and clearer.